1. The flow regime is a primary determinant of the structure and function of aquatic and riparian ecosystems for streams and rivers. Hydrologic alteration has impaired riverine ecosystems on a global scale, and the pace and intensity of human development greatly exceeds the ability of scientists to assess the effects on a river-by-river basis. Current scientific understanding of hydrologic controls on riverine ecosystems and experience gained from individual river studies support development of environmental flow standards at the regional scale.
2. This paper presents a consensus view from a group of international scientists on a new framework for assessing environmental flow needs for many streams and rivers simultaneously to foster development and implementation of environmental flow standards at the regional scale. This framework, the ecological limits of hydrologic alteration (ELOHA), is a synthesis of a number of existing hydrologic techniques and environmental flow methods that are currently being used to various degrees and that can support comprehensive regional flow management. The flexible approach allows scientists, water-resource managers and stakeholders to analyse and synthesise available scientific information into ecologically based and socially acceptable goals and standards for management of environmental flows.
3. The ELOHA framework includes the synthesis of existing hydrologic and ecological databases from many rivers within a user-defined region to develop scientifically defensible and empirically testable relationships between flow alteration and ecological responses. These relationships serve as the basis for the societally driven process of developing regional flow standards. This is to be achieved by first using hydrologic modelling to build a ‘hydrologic foundation’ of baseline and current hydrographs for stream and river segments throughout the region. Second, using a set of ecologically relevant flow variables, river segments within the region are classified into a few distinctive flow regime types that are expected to have different ecological characteristics. These river types can be further subclassified according to important geomorphic features that define hydraulic habitat features. Third, the deviation of current-condition flows from baseline-condition flow is determined. Fourth, flow alteration–ecological response relationships are developed for each river type, based on a combination of existing hydroecological literature, expert knowledge and field studies across gradients of hydrologic alteration.
4. Scientific uncertainty will exist in the flow alteration–ecological response relationships, in part because of the confounding of hydrologic alteration with other important environmental determinants of river ecosystem condition (e.g. temperature). Application of the ELOHA framework should therefore occur in a consensus context where stakeholders and decision-makers explicitly evaluate acceptable risk as a balance between the perceived value of the ecological goals, the economic costs involved and the scientific uncertainties in functional relationships between ecological responses and flow alteration.
5. The ELOHA framework also should proceed in an adaptive management context, where collection of monitoring data or targeted field sampling data allows for testing of the proposed flow alteration–ecological response relationships. This empirical validation process allows for a fine-tuning of environmental flow management targets. The ELOHA framework can be used both to guide basic research in hydroecology and to further implementation of more comprehensive environmental flow management of freshwater sustainability on a global scale.